Vasyl Shevchuk: Побратими, або Пригоди двох запорожців на суходолі, в морі та під водою (Blood Brothers)
While we rightly tend to think of Russia as Ukraine’s enemy, it has, sadly, had various others. The Germans in World War II are obvious ones. However, in the early seventeenth century, when this book is set, the main ones are the Poles who occupy much of what is noiw Ukraine and the Turks and Tatars who raid the area and capture people to be used as slaves and, for the attractive women, in the harems of rich Turks.
The heroes of this book are Zaporozhian Cossacks. We tend to think of the Cossacks as Russian but Ukraine has its own ones. These were essentially groups of people that were not happy with the Poles, Tatars and Turks and got together to fight back. They were the equivalent of rebels, the resistance, maquis and so on, found in West Europe.
Our hero is Petro Nepran. He had been captured by the Turks and, back home, was long considered dead. However a Turk had helped him to escape and he is now making his way back home. Home, however, is not his parents, whom we never meet, but the house in Khutory of his girlfriend, Uliana, and her father, Siryk. However, like everyone else, they had thought he was dead and Uliana has a new man in her life, Mykola Bodnia. Mykola is working for the Polish occupiers so Petro has two reasons to hate him. He is visiting when Petro arrives and the two immediately squabble. They agree to get up early the next day and fight it out, which they do. They are well away from the village so, at first, do not notice the smoke but soon it becomes apparent the whole village is on fire. They rightly suspect Tatar raiders and hurry back but it is too late. The village is ruined and all the people have been captured, including Uliana and Siryk.
They set off together in pursuit. They think they catch sight of them but it is only a herd of wild horses. They need to rest. They also realise that they must work together and become blood brothers.
They do not find the Tatars and their prisoners but realise they will need help. They go to a Cossack Sich (i.e. camp) where Petro is surprised to find the Cossacks seem to be just lounging around having fun. He wants to rouse them to help him but is dissuaded by Taras, the leader and hetman. His plan is to attack the Turks and they will then threaten the Poles who are rulers of the Ukrainians. While the two sides are occupied with one another, the Cossacks will drive the Poles out of Ukraine and then focus on the Tatars and Turks.
Petro buys into this and becomes a leader. We get a series of brave but at times somewhat improbable acts as the Cossacks attack the Turks, our two heroes capture a Turkish ship on their own, the Cossacks successfully raid Istanbul and, with bullets flying round then and burly Turks attacking them, they somehow escape unscathed. They also manage to free almost all the prisoner captured by the Tatars in Khutory and escape in an underwater boat. Uliana is hit by a Tatar arrow as they are trying to escape but the Tatar and his five companions pay dearly for their arrogance.
The politics now become more complicated. There are two hetmans (hetmen?). Our heroes are known as unregistered Cossacks while the other group are known as registered Cossacks. This latter group is in league with the Poles and our heroes are considered the enemy. Many of them are aristocratic while our heroes are not. While they do not wish to harm fellow Ukrainians, they worry that they might help the Poles so a fiendish plot is planned to kidnap their hetman, Hryhoriy Chorny, led. of course, by our two heroes. There is an opposing voice, that of Tymish Orendarenko but he is overruled. Petro has doubts about Orendarenko’s loyalty and it is clear that Shevchuk does as well.
Things get more difficult as they are now fighting a large Polish force under Stanisław Koniecpolski and though our heroes fight bravely and cleverly (they nearly kidnap Koniecpolski) the match is destined to end in a draw and while the Cossacks gain some concessions, they do not gain their freedom. Indeed, till 1991 they remained under foreign control – Polish, Russian and German. Orendarenko becomes hetman and Taras disappears from history.
There is no question that this is an exciting book with lots of fighting, battles, plotting and brave deeds. The actions of our heroes may appear to be somewhat improbable but no matter. It is also an interesting glimpse into Ukrainian history about which, I would, think most Westerners know little.
First published in 1972 by Veselka
First published in English in 1980 by Baydar
Translated by Yuri Tkach